Sometimes the post brings the most extraordinary things. As many readers will know, the Milcom Memorial Room and Attention Library has been closed for much of the Pandemic, and that has meant a considerable backlog of correspondence. On a recent visit, the current B.B. Chamberlin Fellow collected a satchel of snailmail and two shoebox-sized packages postmarked Chattanooga, Tennessee. The latter, it has turned out, convey to the archive a remarkable clutch of ESTAR(SER) ephemera, most of which dates to the 1960s and early 1970s. The materials (which are a gift of one “Howard Kirkeyard,” not previously known to any of us) appear to have belonged to the legendary “Sonny” Kirkeyard, who briefly assumed editorial control over the Proceedings in the mid-1960s. The gem of gems, which came to light in the smaller of the two boxes, is a short Super-8 film introducing the work of ESTAR(SER) for lay audiences. None of us had previously seen this, or anything quite like it! (Many thanks to Seth “Kilimanjaro” Pybas for his careful digitization of this treasure…)
Posts By: estarser
ESTAR(SER) researchers have a longstanding interest in the ways that new media forms shift attentional behaviors and dynamics. The Order of the Third Bird has been, of course, directly affected, across history, by changing media regimes. The work of Rein Narma, for instance, is a notable and well-studied instance of the intersection of new technologies and new forms of Bird Practice (in this case involving audio processing systems in the 1940s-1960s). Television, too, had massive implications for the attentional regimes of mid-century America, and can be assumed to have reverberated through volées of active Birds. Unfortunately, this remains an under-studied aspect of the history of the Avis Tertia — in large part on account of a paucity of relevant source material. An ESTAR(SER) researcher living in Royal Oak, MI, wrote recently to the Corresponding Secretary concerning a possible lead in this ares. She has approved the posting of the following anonymous query/announcement:
Working in the archives of the Hudson Theater, in New York City, I came recently upon a body of documents suggesting a connection between the Order of the Third Bird and the modestly successful 1950s television gameshow Feather Your Nest. Each broadcast featured a pair of contestants who endeavored to “feather their nest” (i.e., acquire various domestic appliances and furnishings) by means of successful answers to quiz-questions. These were notionally posed by an animatronic “bird” who transited from branch to nest as a kind of countdown timer, pressuring the respondents to make their guesses briskly. The actress Janis Carter, who served as an assistant on the show, and handled the physical “feathers” that served as currency in the game, has long been thought to have been associated with a community of aesthetes operating in the museums of New York City in the mid-1950s. Be that as it may, I have come to suspect, on the basis of documentation I hope soon to publish, that a number of the Feather Your Nest broadcasts made use, surreptitiously, of “Test Pattern” interruptions that were structured to create mesmeric moments of immersive televisual attention — a kind of attention made “pure” via the dramatic attenuation of narrative or graphic “content.” I believe I can show that a cohort of Birds, working playfully within the studio structure of NBC in those years, experimented with specific protocols geared for use on television Test Patterns. Consider the attached sample as a suggestive instance.
We attach the video she sent along, which is indeed very striking. More research is surely wanted in this area, and those having additional information are encouraged to convey it.
While Communiqués generally serves as a clearinghouse for specific attention-related research projects (announcing archival discoveries, reporting preliminary findings for larger works-in-progress, floating queries to the ESTAR[SER] research community), there is also some precedent for using this forum to share updates about ESTAR(SER) itself, as an association (its history, personnel, and doings). In keeping with that tradition, we provide here a link to a recent PODCAST, produced by the Glasgow International. In it, ESTAR(SER) associates Sal Randolph and D. Graham Burnett, both of whom have served on the board of the Milcom Memorial Reading Room and Attention Library, discuss how they have collaborated on several ESTAR(SER) undertakings over the last decade.
The Case of Paulin de Barral
Modest considerations concerning a collection of stolen shoes
[A communication from ESTAR(SER) researcher Martin Pêcheur, Grenoble; Translated from the French by David De Ock]
Choderlos de Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons, the 1782 epistolary novel celebrating the louche life of the Viscount de Valmont and Madame de Merteuil, is relatively well known. What is, however, much less widely recognized is that Laclos most likely based his main character on an actual historical personage: Paulin de Barral, a noble son of the city of Allevard, located in the Gresivaudan, a valley in the Isere region of the French Alps.
This guardsman of the king, whose reputation for licentiousness has followed him over the centuries, was forcefully separated from his worldly treasure (as well as his wife), in the very year of publication of Laclos’s literary masterpiece. Dismissed from the Court, he returned to Allevard where he became director of the region’s ironworks. His fate, as well as his amorous exploits, provide a source of entertainment and humor for the citizens of Allevard to this day.
But we shall pass over these local titters in silence, and instead turn to some important historical details, which, if they can be verified, may oblige us to reconsider the life and motives of this disgraced nobleman — he who gave himself over, in his own words, “to a life of dissipation due to my own general passivity.”
Let’s start at the beginning. In 1757, the youngster Paulin was taken by his mother, the Marquise de Montferrat, to visit Voltaire in Geneva for the purpose of receiving inoculation against smallpox. These few weeks spent at “Les Delices” provided the occasion for an episode which proves, on further examination, of considerable significance to our thesis. One evening, having received his treatment from Dr. Tronchin, and while his mother discussed domestic matters with her maid (and while Voltaire himself was occupied with some manner of correspondence), young Barral seems to have exhibited a most surprising kind of behavior. When the household reassembled from its various activities, they found him alone, completely absorbed in seemingly rapturous contemplation of a single shoe, perhaps abandoned by accident in the corridor or perhaps liberated from its accustomed home by our subject himself. The group’s initial amusement soon gave way to a sense of concern when, it seems, no one was able to rouse Paulin from his trancelike fascination.
Voltaire wrote to a friend:
“The shoe in question, standing tall on its very high heel and sloping down sharply toward its pointed toe, resembled nothing so much as a small dog drawing back in fright with its forequarters scraping the floor while its haunches point toward the sky. Said shoe was decorated with a silver buckle encrusted with rhinestones, while its embroidered flanks were enhanced by the addition of well-placed seed pearls. I confess that, beyond the awkwardness of the moment for the adults present, I could easily understand how a child, victim of his own curiosity at a tender age, could be captured by such a masterpiece. I noted that in fact I myself had not always been sufficiently attentive to such magnificent works of art, essential for courtly protocol and supportive, literally and figuratively, of so many rich conversations. The episode gave me food for thought over the course of several days.”
No reference to it is to be found in subsequent writings of the illustrious philosopher, nor indeed in any correspondence of the Marquise.
It seems to have escaped the attention of critics that, despite ample documentation, echoes of this episode reverberated in the later life of Barral. Following his death, for instance, a large armoire among his belongings was found to be stuffed with a collection of shoes, apparently stolen from the court and jealously held captive by Barral himself. This strange discovery has heretofore been attributed simply to the hoarding tendencies of the deceased, but it is now time to reevaluate the episode — in light of the scandals that led to Barral’s dismissal from the court life, and in light of a deeper emergent understanding of the place of a “Birdish” sustained attention in Barral’s life.
Historians report that two grand galas took place during this period, one at the King’s Court and the other at the chateau of Cassel. Paulin de Barral was indeed a guest at both events. These same sources report that our young count “had taken it upon himself to make an inappropriate foray through the bedchambers of the fine ladies in attendance, and appropriated for himself from the personal effects of each a single shoe of great beauty,” leaving behind, in each case, an orphan now bereft of its matching companion. With the hour of the ball at hand, there was no time for the unfortunate ladies to obtain new pairs of matching shoes.
Confronted by the pressing etiquette of appearing before the Court, the ladies faced equally unattractive alternatives. Should they arrive with one bare foot hidden as well as possible under their skirts? or fail to appear at all at such an obligatory social event? Amidst general confusion, the ladies persevered in appearing as required, but without perhaps suitable attention paid to the impact of their circumstances. Teetering on a single high heel, each hobbled and limped toward the dance floor.
And thus, for the first and last time in their distinguished histories, both Courts hosted galas based on new dance forms, during which dancers hopped, skipped, and occasionally even fell — thought apparently without ever lacking in a certain grace. At the conclusion of this eminently “forgettable” event (which was, of course, indelibly remembered), the participants’ apartments were searched and Barral was found to be in possession of forty-two shoes on the first evening and thirty-six on the second. He was, needless to say, dismissed from both Courts, permanently and without redress, a banishment effected in less time than was required for the compromised ladies to reclaim their missing footwear.
It has even been asserted that, by the time that our thief was apprehended the second time, he had managed to erect a veritable pyramid of shoes rising from the floor of his own rooms, and was found in front of his bizarre construct, erect and composed, with eyes fixed on his creation. Half crazed, half enchanted, he was evidently absorbed as he had previously been as a child in blissful (if extravagant) contemplation. His titles and connections enabled him to avoid prison but not to escape exile.
In the context of historical research into the Order of the Third Bird, such events immediately suggest an opportunity of important historical revisionism.
Let us press on, therefore, with our analysis, and take a moment to pay special attention to Barral’s later (oblique) representation in literature. If Paulin de Barral did indeed inspire Choderlos de Laclos, do we find any indication of Valmont’s fascination with shoes over the course of Dangerous Liaisons? An initial textual review finds virtually no reference to “shoes” or “pumps,” and thus might discourage us from our line of inquiry. But this approach fails to capture the great number of occurrences of the word “foot” as used by Valmont throughout his correspondence, to wit:
“I will throw myself at your feet and into your arms, and I will prove to you, a million times in a million ways, that you are, that you will always be, the true queen of my heart.”
“Yes, I continued, I pledge at your feet that I must have you or I will die.”
“Only after this preliminary act of contrition do I dare place at your feet the humbling confession of my wanderings.”
“Love leads me back to your feet.”
“It is at your feet, it is in your heart that I place my suffering.”
“Like the knights of old who would place the spoils of their victories at the feet of their Ladies…”
“I was tempted over and over to invent a pretext to throw myself at your feet.”
“At a moment such as this, I feel a sense of identification with women of loose morals, and this leads me naturally to fall at your feet.”
“I contemplated for a few moments this angelic face, after gazing down from her head to her feet, I further indulged my glance in ascending back from her feet to her head.” [Translator’s note: “from head to toe” is the apt expression in English, but might confuse the issue for the reader in this case].
The links between these declarations and the episodes discussed above are not yet clear, and one could easily become engaged debating the sensual and symbolic dimensions of these passages. But there is one scene in the novel that should assist us in deepening our reading: that of the appearance of the “shoemaker” at the home of Cecile Volange. In a classic scholarly article from 1979, René Démoris analyzes this scene, focusing with great skill on the young girl’s name.
She is called “Cecile” — Caecilia. In Laclos’s work, there isn’t a moment of doubt. More than her quickly perverted innocence, it is blindness that defines the character. This characteristic is brought to light from the very first scene of the novel: Cecile mistakes a shoemaker, on his knees so that she can try on one of his creations, for a suitor! In her error, she reveals that she is already in the grasp of her figurative language, and unable to comprehend its literal meaning.
In fastening on the onomastic symbolism of her given name, we can take away from the scene that this “little blind girl” is conditioned to perceive the symbolic value of events, and to reject their more obvious, natural, and literal meanings. Perhaps the author wished, through this opening scene and through this character, to alert the reader to the most direct meaning of those scenes involving “feet.” Could we not imagine that, each time that the Viscount “throws himself at the feet” of the women in Dangerous Liaisons, he does so because of his fascination with their shoes? Are not these beautifully-shod feet simply a metonymy, a mechanism that serves as a subtle and ingenious means of obscuring Valmont’s attraction to the beauty of the shoes themselves? And what we see here, of course, is quite obviously a very direct nod to the special shoe-inclinations manifested by Paulin de Barral, Choderlos de Laclos’ Grenoblois compatriot, and Valmont’s manifest original. Surely the reader can, indeed must, escape the same blindness that afflicted Cecile in order to “see” the truth!
What we know for certain is that Barral’s fascination with shoes remained a constant up to the time of his death. The Baron General Thiebault, in his Memoires, mentions the presence of a “personal” collection of shoes in Barral’s possession later in life, a “cache” which is likewise referenced by Georges Salamand in his work entitled Paulin de Barral un libertin dauphinois:
“Once paralyzed, Paulin de Barral had only the glass case, in which he had arranged the shoes stolen from the ladies of the Court, as an outlet for his fantasies.”
Now, rather than seeing this case as a symbol of the fanatical dreams of a complete libertine (as do General Thiebault and Georges Salamand), we prefer to view it, given our prior insights, as reflecting the contemplative dimension of a man who was, we believe, a genuine esthete.
In fact, his reputation as “totally lacking in character” and “debauched and disheveled” is based primarily on the notorious Memoir of Madame de Barral for the purpose of obtaining physical and financial separation, 1764-1784, penned by his wife, who was describing a husband from whom she wished to separate. In his own defense, Barral would eventually assert that his wife actually composed drafts of his various love letters on his behalf! And whatever the case may be in this regard, Madame de Barral’s portrait can hardly be said to be unbiased. She is, in several places, particularly dismissive of her estranged husband’s good taste, but on this matter we have other testimony — perhaps more reliable. For instance, Alfred Bougy describes the manor house as follows:
“The interior of the residence of the last Count de Barral captures the very essence of the luxury that flourished under Louis XV during the last years of Pompadour. Rich gilding covered every surface and, at each turn, one discovered yet another boudoir.”
This good taste likewise struck Alexandre Delisle, who wrote:
“The Chateau of Allevard is large and commodious. It is surprising to find, in this out-of-the-way place, a residence furnished in such taste and decorated with numerous paintings, many by recognized masters. The gardens were shaped initially by the natural contours of the land which rose up around the area in inaccessible bluffs. The subsequent artistic planting at their base produced a picturesque setting of the highest imaginable enchantment. Down a pathway, one encountered a kiosk some sixty rods south of the chateau. It sits on a precipice above the Breda which forms several sites (‘moments,’ as the landscape architects like to say) of outstanding beauty throughout the garden. In the surrounding forests, M. de Barral had caused to be built a series of benches for the benefit of those whose curiosity about this dramatic setting had led them onto the steep pathways.”
Such observations are puzzling, as they portray Paulin de Barral as a contemplative man, responsive to the beauties of the world and of art, a man whose personal library encompassed “everything of importance to the cultivated man of the Enlightenment” (Salamand, p. 107). Can this be the same man described as possessing a stormy, disrespectful temperament? the same man whose hand required washing each time a physician wished to take his pulse, so deplorable was his personal hygiene? Such a list of charges seems, by these lights, questionable at best.
If we remove, here, the ghost of the “fetish” and the Freudian interpretations that dog this line of analysis, then new doors and dimensions of our story can be opened. It is not impossible that what really obsessed Paulin de Barral was a more subtle work of aesthetic practice, a deeper dive into “aesthesis” — which is to say, in particular, a celebration of the power of the senses, a program decried and misunderstood by his time (and, to some extent, even by our own).
Barral’s secrets will unfortunately never be completely revealed, and our principle source of information about his life is the memoir written by his wife which can hardly be considered objective. On the other hand, we do know that Barral regularly kept a notebook-diary that might have revealed such secrets. However, it is unlikely ever to be found, or so his Barral’s biographer, Georges Salamand, who refers to this missing document as the “Holy Grail” of his research:
“In 1942, the then owners of the ironworks, the Directorate of Mines of the Marine d’Homecourt, were required by the Vichy government to turn over the archives of Paulin de Barral. They were censored so badly that in 1977 I noted some overlooked items, which caused me to continue my pursuits up to this very day. But the journal of Paulin de Barral, mentioned in 1784, has disappeared forever. I am convinced that it contained ‘THE key’ to Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons.”
Those familiar with the practices and history of the Order of the Third Bird will not find tangible proof here that Paulin de Barral belonged to this organization, evidence for the long existence of which always requires considerable effort to unearth. One additional consideration, however, may well shape our final conclusion: The Chateau Barral has recently been sold off in shares to various purchasers. One such buyer, upon undertaking a renovation of the newly acquired apartment, made a surprising discovery. When these new owners set about demolishing a closet, the family (whose name I will withhold because they wish to remain anonymous to avoid being set upon by archive-fetishists) admitted to me that they had discovered a small chest decorated with a carved wooden bird, and containing a pair of particularly finely made shoes.
During our conversation, my source made mention of this find, before revealing inadvertently that a sheaf of papers, also found in the box, contained some brief handwritten notes. These writings have not been turned over to me, but rather lent for just enough time to copy some of the entries — although not without considerable difficulty, given the nature of the script in question. These texts are still under study at this time by our researchers and archivists, searching through what has come to be called “The W-Cache” for additional clues about the activities of this mysterious and attentionally-extravagant nobleman.
What we can say at this juncture, while we await the production of facsimiles permitting the publication of the documents, is that these notes, in their readable sections, describe the esthetic relationship that the Count maintained with each item in his collection. These observations are presented in four categories, marked by designated symbols, but not titled in words. Included in these groupings are brief letters of invitation to the Chateau for the purpose of “group contemplative practices,” or for a “meeting of the greatest esthetes of the region.” Such letters cannot possibly be taken as examples of invitations to engage in “debauchery” (as they are by Anne Giraudeau in a recent scholarly article), but rather, as those initiates of the Order of the Third Bird will recognize, these invitations almost certainly reflect familiar calls to the practice of sustained attention that has been the hallmark of the Avis Tertia throughout the ages.
A brief note from a reader:
A number of commentators have remarked on the extent to which the English moral philosopher (and novelist) Iris Murdoch centered her ethics on the notion of “Attention.” Recent work would include Anil Gomes’s 2013 article in the British Journal of Aesthetics and this essay, just published last year by Christopher Cordner. It is also a fact in evidence that those interested in durational practices of attention (in the manner of the Birds, and in other traditions) have for years read in Murdoch’s 1970 volume The Sovereignty of Good for inspiration and orientation regarding “Practical Aesthesis.”
What has not, I think, been adequately delved is the remarkable “Birdishness” of what can be read as the key passage in the whole volume, to wit, the magnificent passage on page 84 of the third chapter, “The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts”:
It is impossible not to be struck by the conjunction of the notions of “unselfing” and “aesthetic experience” with an encounter with an actual bird.
Which raises the question: Was Iris Murdoch a Bird? Or in some way associated with the Birds? To my knowledge, the issue has not been explored in any depth. But it is a fact worthy of consideration (and almost entirely overlooked) that Murdoch in fact authored, in 1978 an entire book of poems, each and every one of which treats of birds. The volume, known as A YEAR IN BIRDS (London: Chatto and Windus and the Hogarth Press) featured original woodcut illustrations by the artist Reynolds Stone. Much would seem to hinge on the month of August, which offers a five-line invocation of the kestrel itself, the bird we know, from Murdoch’s work on attention, figures as an allegory of that form of attention capable of transforming existence. It will be worth reproducing the verses and the woodcut, since they evidently stand at the center of a Birdish theory of attention:
A recent inquiry comes to us from an ESTAR(SER) researcher in Japan:
In the course of a larger project investigating Ptilosis among associates/affiliates of the Order of the Third Bird in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I stumbled upon the valuable work of Waldron DeWitt Miller (1879-1929), whose tragic death in a motorcycle accident in the New Jersey Pine Barrens was a blow both to lovers of birds (in the avian sense), and to whose who knew Miller better under the Birdish sobriquet Wood Pewee. By this moniker he called countless “Actions” of the Avis Tertia in and around the American Museum of Natural History in the ‘teens and twenties (including a notorious 1922 occasion in which a cohort of devotees attended durationally and metempsychotically upon a large Charles R. Knight painting depicting neanderthals in the act of realizing cave paintings; the resulting “graffiti” in the great hall were later determined to have been done by vandals unrelated to the Action).
Miller’s celebrated “Notes on Ptilosis, with Special Reference to the Feathering of the Wing” (Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 34 : 129-140) contains a lengthy discussion of the alula (or “bastard wing”) of the cuckoo bird (genus Tapera), which is notable for its size. The broader evolutionary/systematic significance of this characteristic may be put aside (for now), since it was my effort to follow up on Miller’s alula observations that led me to a most peculiar and roundabout “discovery” — the immediate object of the present correspondence.
Briefly, then: In the course of a set of Google searches of the term “alula,” I stumbled on what would appear to be a kind of magazine or samizdat publication distributed under that title. In itself, this elicited no surprise. I assumed it must be a minor ornithological bulletin, or perhaps a gazetteer issued in connection with one or another of the eponymous towns of the Arab world. But upon closer perusal, it seemed impossible to deny that this “Alula” publication has some connection to the attentional activities of the Order of the Third Bird itself! Imagine my surprise at the circuit my researches had run in this instance! Most bizarre. I include here two images from the website of the publication, placing in evidence proofs that it must hail from persons conversant with the usages of the Avis Tertia. Consider:
I should add that I have written to these Alula editor/authors in the (provided) “contact” section of their website — seeking more information. But have nothing from them yet (and am not overly optimistic).
For those wishing to consult the publication, I provide a link here. Anyone with further information, correspondence would be welcome.
The editors of Communiqués did indeed follow up on the link, and we are in sympathy with our colleague in Tokyo: uncanny. We would be happy to receive (and will transmit) any further intelligence.
Work by ESTAR(SER) researchers over the last several years has brought new clarity to an issue that has long vexed students of the history of the “Order of the Third Bird” and its allied (& variant) bodies: to wit, the status of the use of intoxicants and stimulants in connection with attentional practices in the Birdish key. A close reading of the document known as “The Goodway Speeches” (the 1977 transcript of a charivari of Plato’s Symposium, performed, apparently, as a kind of dinner-theater by a gaggle of inebriated hippie-Birds at the high-water mark of counter-culture “practical aesthesis”) reveals a stern warning that the Practice of the Order is strictly immiscible with the pharmacopeia of ekstasis.
Further detailed work on the topic is expected in a forthcoming volume of the Proceedings. Nevertheless, the history of the Order is very definitely marked by a scintillating penumbra of practitioners who appear to have experimented with various supplementations of the disciplined transports associated with the canonical Practice (one thinks, here, in recent times, of the complex trajectory of Gonzalo Merrill and Reni Eppling, and the unfortunate rise and fall of “ESTRAS,” the so-called “Esthetical Society for Transcendental Realization and Applied Sensuality”; see Merrill and Eppling, “The Merrill-Eppling Peripatetic Peripeteia,” Proceedings, New Series 5 [June 2011]).
And in keeping with an intrepid willingness to go wherever the research takes us, we forward a recent note from an anonymous ESTAR(SER) scholar working on the filiations of Bird Practices through the youth-movements of the 1960s and ’70s. Replies or follow-up inquires may be directed to the editors.
“In the course of research into formal practices of ‘Birdish’ attention in and around the ‘Counter Education’ circles of Los Angeles on the watershed of the 1970s, I followed up a lead that passed through Tuli Kupferberg to the Fugs, and from there to Barbara Ann Goldblatt, aka Antonia Duren — sometime songwriter for ‘The Holy Modal Rounders’ (aka ‘The Total Quintessence Stomach Pumpers,’ and, sometimes, if only in jest, ‘The Motherfucker Creek Babyrapers’ [sic/sick]). It was at this moment that I had a rather shocking realization: Duren is credited as the author of the Easy Rider soundtrack hit ‘If you want to be a bird’ (1969)! I recommend re-watching the crucial scene, which speaks volumes on what has come to be known as ‘The Disestablishment Period’ in the work of the Order.”
We append a link, for those who wish to consider:
The Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) lived a brief and itinerant life of literary productivity and fragile health across the second half of the nineteenth century. Relegated posthumously to the ambivalent company of swashbuckling yarn-spinners from the high-water era of the British Empire, Stevenson has enjoyed recent critical reappraisals, and his works have seen new scrutiny. His links to Henry James have received attention, and his influence on Joseph Conrad, Borges, Nabokov, and other notable twentieth-century authors point to a literary importance perhaps still not fully appreciated.
Was Stevenson associated with the “Order of the Third Bird,” or one of its adjacencies? The question has been raised before, perhaps most elaborately in an essay by Reni Eppling published in the Proceedings of ESTAR(SER) entitled “Pieces of Eight: Captain Flint as a Pirate Bird” (Series II, Volume III, Issue 2; 1969). Briefly, the argument presented there amounted to a claim that the hard-swearing, doublet-wearing, two-hundred-year-old parrot named “Captain Flint,” who is the spirit animal of the pirate band in Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), must be understood as an avatar of Birdishness in the book as a whole — and specifically as an allegory of the author’s relationship to the Practice of the Order across the 1870s. Without rehearsing Eppling’s rather baroque case, it suffices to mention that the parrot in question does enact a kind of “vigilance” at several key junctures in the narrative, and that its uncanny powers of attention do receive explicit mention in the book. We will put aside, here, any discussion of Gonzalo Merrill’s animadversion on Eppling’s essay, both because his counterposition (that actual pirate communities in the Caribbean in the eighteenth century were built around Birdish practices of sustained attention) can be shown to have no basis in fact, and because Sonny Kirkeyard, in editing the Eppling-Merrill materials from the late 1960s and early 1970s, came to believe that Merrill’s reply to Eppling was probably a joke (and may actually have been written by Eppling herself).
Be all that as it may, a lingering sense of Stevenson’s engagement with the Order has endured, and we have a recent query from an ESTAR(SER) researcher currently resident in Samoa (where the author lived out the last phase of his life, and died), who is apparently working on a new essay on Stevenson and the Birds. We reproduce it here in relevant part, and can facilitate any follow-up communication:
In the course of recent reading in the letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, I have been struck by what appears to be a veiled discussion of a tactic for use in the phase of NEGATION, such as is practiced by devotees of the Avis Tertia. The reference appears in an 1894 letter from RLS to his cousin, the painter and critic Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson. It would seem that the latter had attempted to narrate a particularly intense Action of the Birds in which he had participated (this letter we do not possess), and that RLS, in reply, wishes both to acknowledge the account, and gesture at a (related?) form of Negation that involves the total abolition of the present tense itself. Here is the relevant passage, from the final paragraph of the letter:
To look back, and to stereotype one bygone humour—what a hopeless thing! The mind runs ever in a thousand eddies like a river between cliffs. You (the ego) are always spinning round in it, east, west, north, and south. You are twenty years old, and forty, and five, and the next moment you are freezing at an imaginary eighty; you are never the plain forty-four that you should be by dates. (The most philosophical language is the Gaelic, which has no present tense…)
I am hopeful that any associates of ESTAR(SER) who might be in possession of information bearing on what we might want to call the “Gaelic Negation” will perhaps be willing to share details of such usages.
Evidence of a Volée of German Psychophysicians c. 1860
Recently, while contributing research to a study of “Birdish” bookmarks in the Milcom Library Collection, an associate of ESTAR(SER) made a fascinating discovery. His notice on the matter has just crossed our desk, and we reproduce it here in full:
I was asked by my colleagues in ESTAR(SER) to retrieve a single quotation from the work of Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801-1887) pertaining to the historicity of the Order of the Third Bird, but in searching for it I stumbled on something that may be of interest for our collective research beyond any shorter-term projects we have. To wit, I have discerned in Fechner’s Elemente der Psychophysik (1860) evidence of a lost practice of attention under conditions of total darkness.
Fechner cites a number of earlier authors writing on the familiar phenomenon whereby someone who stays in a dark space for an extended time comes to perceive objects in that space to which a person just arrived from the outdoor light would be completely blind. Buffon, for one, describes a prisoner who after some months in a pitch-black cell was able to observe the mice he shared it with as if they were bathed in a rich luminosity.
Fechner is guardedly interested in the work of his near-contemporary Carl Ludwig von Reichenbach (1788-1869), who in his Odisch-magnetische Briefe (1859) introduces the concept of the Od. This term is derived from the Old Norse ōðr, commonly translated as “feeling,” but also having the sense of “song” or “poetry.” Reichenbach appropriates it and Germanizes it to describe a life-force that steers the body and that can be detected emanating out of it under the right experimental conditions. This od or “odic force” is conceived as something akin to both electricity and magnetism, and to this extent is but one expression of many in the era of a broad interest, best exemplified in the work of Franz Mesmer (1734-1815), in explaining the activity of living bodies in terms of fundamental physical forces that were only beginning to be understood.
What interests Fechner most in Reichenbach’s work, however, is the capacity this latter author attributes to the so-called Sensitives: people who have unusual powers due to the greater share they possess of the odic force. Reichenbach’s Sensitives, Fechner observes, “see, in total darkness, a glowing, at the poles of strong magnets of flame-like appearances of light; at the north pole they perceive blue and blue-grey, at the south pole red, red-yellow, and red-grey.” Reichenbach also maintains, Fechner notes, “that they see a glowing at the points of crystals, at the extremities of living human, animal, and plant bodies, particularly at the fingertips, in metals, sulphur, and fluids that are obtained in chemical reactions or in crystallisation, and so on. The author arrives in the end at the result,” Fechner concludes, referring to volume II of Reichenbach’s Der sensitive Mensch und sein Verhalten zum Ode (1855), “that all bodies on the earth in general give off a light in the darkness that is detectable by Sensitives, only that some do so more, and some less.”*
Who are these “Sensitives”? Intriguingly, in a footnote to the second edition of the Elemente der Psychophysik (Leipzig, 1861), Fechner comments that he has heard of a contingent of Reichenbach’s followers who describe themselves by this term, and who, Fechner believes, cultivate their sensitivity even beyond their innate capacity through what he describes as Aufmerksamkeitsübungen, i.e., exercises of attention. Fechner writes: “Thus do they sharpen their sensitivity: in total darkness they direct their eyes, all together and for a fixed period of time, towards one and the same art object, until they detect its glowing. Some of them maintain that in the perception of this glowing the sensitive observer temporarily shares in the same inner nature as the observed object.”**
Could this be evidence for the existence of a volée of the Order within the cultural nexus of the not-quite-fringe yet not fully credence-worthy German psychophysicians of the mid-19th century? Clearly, further research is required.
*“Reichenbach giebt in seinen Schriften über das sog. Od an, dass gewisse Personen, sog. Sensitiven, im vollkommenen Dunkel an den Polen starker Magnete flammenähnliche Lichterscheinungen, am Nordpole blaue und Blaugraue, am Südpole eine rothe, rothgelbe und rothgraue wahrnehmen, dass sie auch die Spitze von Krystallen, lebende menschliche, thierische und pflanzliche Körper, ganz besonders die Fingerspitzen, Metalle, Schwefel, Flüssigkeiten, die im chemischen oder Krystallisationsacte begriffen sind, u. s w. leuchten sehen. Endlich kommt der Verf. (sensit. Mensch II. S. 192) zu dem Resultate, dass alle Körper der Erde überhaupt im Dunkeln Licht, für die Sensitiven spürbar, ausgeben, die einen nur mehr, die anderen weniger” (323-24).
**“So schleifen sie ihre Empfindlichkeit: im vollkommenen Dunkel richten sie die Augen alle zusammen für eine bestimmte Zeit auf ein und dasselbe Kunstobjekt, bis sie das Leuchten davon spüren. Einige von ihnen behaupten, dass beim Beobachten dieses Leuchtens der sensitive Beobachter dasselbe innere Wesen als der beobachtete Gegenstand vorübergehend teilt.”
We agree with our associate: further research is required. Anyone inclined to pursue the topic will be interested to recall that this is not the first time occult tendencies have surfaced in the historicity of the Order. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most notably, the English antiquarian (and probable Bird) Francis Douce (1757-1834) experimented on the “attentional landscapes” putatively perceived by Welsh and Irish clairvoyants blessed with second sight; subsequently, in the early twentieth-century, a cohort of figures in and around Britain appears to have formalized Douce’s esoteric methods into a “Corona of Care” protocol, the first phase of which is “Watch the Darkness.” Could Reichenbach have been aware Douce? Could the protocol be linked to Reichenbach?
We are passing the matter on to ESTAR(SER)’s “Standing Committee on Practical Auratics” for further investigation. In the meanwhile, do not hesitate to send critical responses or promising leads to the Editor of the Communiqués.
There has never been much evidence that orthodox associates of the Order of the Third Bird have engaged in any sustained way in “Birdish” practices of attention to natural landforms — or, indeed, to “natural” objects more generally. While a number of “divergent” tendencies (one thinks immediately of the twentieth-century Russian “Korfians,” about whom Justin E. H. Smith and others have written at some length; and on the “Oannes Scrap” and the activities of M.I. Return Maycomb in the 1820s and 30s) have arisen that do indeed perform attentional rites on the night sky, the ocean surface, horizon-lines, and various other non-canonical objects, the basic widely accepted rubric for the Practice has long been that devotees attend on “objects made to be seen.” This seems to have been interpreted widely, and admitted also of other sensory modalities. But the notion of “intent” has been paramount. In this context, doing a Bird Action on a natural object (a tree, say, or ordinary rock) can been understood to raise theological questions of some depth.
Working the edge of this problem has been a preoccupation of several known volées operating in North America and Western Europe since the 1960s, and we have secondhand reports (in the W-Cache and in oral traditions) of active debates around the suitability of a bonsai tree as a “Work” in the sense acknowledged by the main line of the Avis Tertia (the preponderance of collective opinion on this was affirmative). Another striking “boundary case” has been Robert Irwin’s epochal “String Drawing – Filtered Light” of 1976 (a delimited patch of grass in the garden of the Venice Biennial, which heralded the young Irwin’s move to the thresholds of direct sensory experience via bracketed bits of the world). There has long been a rumor that a Southern California volée performs an annual Action upon a pastiche of this work installed anew every May near Twenty-Nine Palms in Wonder Valley. There seem to be a small number of dissenters who, in a ritualized (and apparently friendly) manner, “protest” this Action every year. Both groups finish the day with a cookout, if these reports are to be believed.
All of this makes the present photograph of interest. It came to light in 2015, in materials related to the estate of a Los Angeles researcher long associated with ESTAR(SER). It would appear to represent an Action of associates of the Order working in Ohio in the mid-1920s, using a “Protocol for Topography” that has not been preserved. Anyone in possession of information that might bear on this document is encouraged to follow up with the Editor of the Communiqués directly.